Best Practices in Art Conservation

By Senior Conservator Peggy Van Witt

© 2010 Peggy Van Witt. All Rights Reserved.

Art conservation is a form of preventative medicine. If a work of art is properly cared for and conserved over the years, it will retain or increase its value and will, most likely, not have to undergo the often costly process or surgical procedure of art restoration. However – many works of art in need of conservation are ancient and have already suffered the abuses of time. Stopping the aging process of a work of art is a crucial step not only in preserving the art for future generations, but from halting its further deterioration into a worthless, un-enjoyable, collection of dust and rubble.

Over the years, the practices in art conservation have changed dramatically. Art conservation practice begun thousands of years ago when humanity began to realize the impermanence of the art they were creating it. Much of this art was religious in nature, leading clergymen from diverse religious backgrounds, to develop their own time-honored methods of art conservation. In the nineteenth century, the fields of science and art began to intertwine as scientists began to study the harmful effects of the environment on works of art. As a career, art conservation developed in Germany when a well known museum hired a chemist to create a systematic approach to caring for the various artistic objects in its collection.

Conserving artwork chemically eventually became the most common conservation practice. Unfortunately, many of the chemicals used to preserve a painting, statue, or mural, are now known to have damaging attributes. Many varnishes and sealants used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are now actively removed by modern day conservation artists. In addition to removing harmful chemicals which may, or may not, have been administered by former conservation artists, current conservation artists consider many other exterior factors in their art conservation practice. This includes factors such as light exposure, humidity, altitude, air quality, temperature, vibration levels, to name a few.

Today’s conservation artists are highly trained, skilled, knowledgeable and passionate, thus offering the best conservation practices in history. Modern conservation practices are highly scientific and technological in nature. At the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, microscopes and imaging technology are used to assess various works of art. They stand idly aside easels, paints, varnishes, and resins. In the world of art conservation, art and science have merged. Many art conservation studios resemble a hybrid of an art studio and a forensics lab. Using technologies in labs such as the one found at the Straus Center for Conservation, we have discovered unbelievable attributes of hundreds of famous works of art – including secret, hidden layers of paint.

Technologies developed for other fields are used widely in art conservation. Most common is ultraviolet technology. X-ray machines, created to look through our skin for broken bones, are frequently used to scan large pieces of artwork to look for cracks. Needles are used to biopsy small fragments from paintings to examine more closely under a microscope. To peer beneath painted surfaces to see the under-drawings that artistic masters used to plan, prepare and organize their paintings. Art conservators employ the services of infrared cameras, originally developed to enhance night vision during the Korean War. It is this amazing use of infrared technology which lets us look through layers of paint and see things we have never seen before.

The best art conservation practices today utilize a combination of modern technology and highly skilled professionals. Because the realm of this work is so highly scientific, most art conservation work will be done professionally in a lab-like setting.

Pacing of an art conservation project can take anywhere from one or two days to ten or fifteen years, depending on the severity of the damage, the age of the work of art, as well as its value. Many famous and well known conservation and restoration projects have taken years of dedicated, non-stop work. The art restoration of the Sistine Chapel, when worked on by dozens of restoration and conservation artists round-the-clock, took over fourteen years to complete, from 1980 to 1994. It is therefore essential to bear in mind that some of the best conservation practices are timely.

Conservation practices, as expected, vary drastically between art mediums. The art conservation practice associated with a valuable piece of ancient pottery will vary from the art conservation practice associated with a large mural painting on the exterior of a church in South America.

However, all modern day art conservation practices will employ the use of a qualified conservation artist who specializes in the field relevant to the task at hand, and the benefits of modern technology.